Kentucky Basketball: Objective #1 Accomplished, and What it Means

It says here the last time the Kentucky Wildcats were the regular-season SEC champions was 2004-05.  It also says that the five-year interregnum between SEC regular-season championships was the second longest on record -- the longest being the nine-year span between 1986 and 1995, which encompassed the UK probation years.

The SEC regular-season championship is, as far as I know, always Objective #1 when it comes to Kentucky basketball.  Being the best team in this league is a highly variable accolade -- sometimes, it means you are one of the two or three best teams in the nation, and sometimes, like last year, it just means you are the best of a bad lot.

In 2009-10, having the best record in the SEC after the smoke clears is probably nearer to the top end of that scale than the bottom.  Still, I think it's fair to say that being the best team in the fifth best league in the country this year, in and of itself, would not strike fear into the hearts of the nation's elite.  However, there is the fact that Kentucky is tied for the second best record among the BCS conferences, and that adds considerable weight.  Of course, win-loss records only mean something in the context of schedule strength.  The RPI has Kentucky still at #4 despite the Syracuse Orange road loss to the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday.  Based on all that, I think UK has made a case for a #1 seed that will even sustain a conference tournament loss.

Which brings me to the question -- what is Objective #2?  Normally, I would argue it is the SEC Tournament, unless (and this year is one of those "unless" times) you have already wrapped up a number 1 NCAA Tournament seed.  Since UK has ostensibly achieved a very strong and possibly unassailable argument for a #1 NCAA Tournament seed, the SEC Tournament championship becomes a bit less important.  But there is a factor at work that actually makes it more important than it normally is -- a six-year SEC Tournament championship drought.  That's tied for the longest absence from the SEC Tournament Championship since it was reinstated in 1979 (there was no tournament between 1952 and 1979).

More after the jump.

Since this is the "year of renewal" for Kentucky as a national and conference powerhouse, I think it is highly desirable to put all these long streaks to bed.  These streaks, among many others, are now history:

  • A 4-year string of 10+ loss seasons
  • A 5-year string of no SEC championships
  • A 4-year absence from a top 3 NCAA tournament seed
  • A 6-year absence from a 30+ win season (assuming, of course, UK doesn't become the first team in history to lose to a 16 seed, or the in the unlikely event of a 2 seed, the fifth team in history to drop a 2-15 game).
  • A 5-year absence from the AP top 10.

There are many other superlatives that I could mention -- the first team since 2005 to have a first-round pick in the NBA draft, the first time since 2004 we have swept Florida or beaten North Carolina, etc.  Suffice it to say that the long streak of sub-par Kentucky teams have definitely and emphatically come to an end.  If we could end our long absence as SEC Tournament Champions, it would be icing on the cake.

From NIT loser to NCAA likely #1 seed.  No way could any member of the Big Blue Nation have written a story more compelling, save for one thing -- an NCAA championship.  Which begs the question -- is this young, freshman-dominated team capable of pulling off the ultimate feat?

Let's look at the pros and cons:  First, the pros:

  • UK is a sold top 5 national squad with at least 3 first-round 2010 NBA draft pics on the current roster.
  • Kentucky's only losses have come on the road in sold-out arenas insane with hostility.  They have a perfect 4-0 record on neutral courts.
  • The Wildcats have shown time and again that they have maturity beyond their years in crunch time.
  • Kentucky has excellent back-court play, a big factor in winning the NCAA championship.
  • None of the starters on this Kentucky team have ever played even one minute of an NCAA tournament, so they know not the fear of losing in an upset in a one-and-done scenario.
  • This Kentucky team plays with a joy and a confidence we have not seen in the Bluegrass since 1996.

Cons:

  • No matter how mature they seem, this team is dominated by freshmen who have never been tested in the NCAA Tournament crucible.
  • Kentucky's 3-point shooting has been up and down, and could render them vulnerable.
  • Film study becomes very hard in the NCAA tournament, and team preparation much more challenging.
  • Underdogs will almost always play fearlessly and well above their heads.  UK will be favored in every game until (if) they reach the Final Four.
  • The Wildcats have shown a repeated propensity for losing interest in games where they get up big, Florida on Sunday being only the latest example.  Do that in the tournament, and it could be doomsday.
  • A deep-running underdog will have a ton of neutral crowd support that could turn the game into the equivalent of a road game.
  • Very few teams with this many freshmen have ever made a deep run in the NCAA tournament, and I can think of almost no team who made a deep run where none of their starters had played one minute of an NCAA Tournament game.  The only players on Kentucky's roster who have ever played in an NCAA tournament game are Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris.

So there you have it.  I'm sure that many of you can add to the list of pros and cons -- please feel free to do so.

In the final analysis, thought, we have no idea how many of these things will impact this young but remarkably talented team.  We have seen a lot of things that give us hope, and a number of things that give us pause, but in the end, this has already been a special season for the Big Blue Faithful, a season that has taken us effortlessly from despair to joy, from embarassment to pride.

The good news -- it could still get a lot better!

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